Sharon Collins is sitting inside a dimly lit cave, wearing an expression of wonderment as a flurry of bats dart over her head. She is poised and calm as she asks her nature guide a series of questions, all the while never flinching as one of the bats comes dangerously close to her face. "If you don't like bats, if the thought of them makes your skin crawl, this show will change your mind," she says confidently into the camera.
Whether she is stand-up kayaking on the Altamaha River or handling a bat, Collins does it with a smile.
"I had to get a series of rabies vaccinations to hold the bats, but it was worth it," she says of the experience.
This is just one example of the can-do, fearless attitude she takes with her all over the state as the host of Georgia Public Broadcasting's (GBP) nature show, "Georgia Outdoors." Sharing the natural treasures that Georgia has to offer is all in a day's work. Now in her third season with the show, she not only serves as the host, but has also produced 21 episodes. "The beauty of this job is working with some incredibly committed people," she says. "They have taught me how to hold a bat, handle a snake and pick up a pelican. What more can a girl ask for?"
Collins is no stranger to spending quality time with Mother Nature. As a child, she lived in a house that was surrounded by woods, a creek and plenty of opportunity to indulge her love of the outdoors. She considered the forest her playground and would spend countless hours outside swinging on tree vines, scampering over boulders and catching critters in the stream. "My father worked for C&P, AT&T and BellSouth, and we moved about every two years," Collins explains. "When you're always the 'new kid,' you learn to make friends quickly, but you also spend a lot of time alone."
No matter where her family moved, she always appreciated her natural surroundings. "I loved the field in front of our house in Fanwood,
New Jersey," she recalls. "In Charleston, West Virginia, I used to skip school and hang out in Kanawha State Forest, a beautiful area with huge boulders and caves. My father always had us outside, playing in the snow or visiting a park." She says she may have been a "handful" for her parents, but she soon discovered her love of nature and adventurous spirit would lead her to the path that would eventually become her career.
Although she admits she didn't plan on having a job in the environmental field at first, Collins still gravitated toward it. She started her professional career in radio, switched to television and eventually became assistant news director/managing editor for WSET-TV in Virginia. It was during that time she launched a multi-faceted station initiative called Project Environment. The station also ran an eco-based story on the six o'clock news each night. "That started the ball rolling and helped me land a job with TBS and CNN," she says.
At TBS she was hired as a host and correspondent on the show, "Network Earth," which was later repurposed and aired on CNN under the title "Earth Matters." CNN brought her on board in 1991, and within a few months she was sent to Brazil to cover the Earth Summit. During her time with CNN, she was awarded a national Emmy for her contribution to the CNN special "In Nature's Wake," a program detailing floods in the Mississippi River Valley. "The current president of GPB hired me at CNN," she says. "When she began looking at the programs, she asked me to take a look at "Georgia Outdoors" and give her some feedback. I was asked to rework the show and the rest is history."
Each season brings a new adventure and a chance to share information with the public about the amazing animals and locations throughout the state. Collins has come face-to-face with loggerhead turtles, crabs, frogs and snakes. She's explored roaring waterfalls, steep canyons and deep rivers. "It's all so beautiful. Rocks, trees, sky, birds – there's just so much to see, and it is always changing."
Collins is constantly thinking of ways to improve the show and bring interesting content to viewers. "It has been a dream to follow a migratory bird outfitted with a radio transmitter, such as a Whimbrel," she says. "These amazing birds fly thousands of miles nonstop from Georgia to the arctic, then down to South America. I want to follow them, document their flight, and track them down at each location. It would take a lot of time and money, but I believe those are the kinds of stories that make viewers really understand the magnificent abilities of animals they may never otherwise be exposed to."
Being exposed to new, natural wonders is at the core of what makes "Georgia Outdoors" such a unique show. "Many viewers write to thank us for informing them about an animal, place or issue they knew nothing about," Collins says. "I hope that showing people what we have within driving distance is enough incentive to yank them away from the video games." So, the next time you have a free moment, Collins encourages you to step outside instead of reaching for the TV remote. Being outside not only offers relief from stress and boredom, but also gives you an appreciation for the great outdoors. "Just sit still for about 15 minutes, and nature begins to move around you," she says. "Birds come closer; chipmunks fly across the grass and a lizard may crawl across your feet." The good news is, unless you're Sharon Collins, there is little to no chance of encountering a bat.
Up Close and Personal with Sharon:
What was your first job?
I pumped gas at an all-girl gas station.
If you did not have your current job, what other vocation do you think you'd be good at?
Landscaping. Also, when no one is listening, I'm a great singer.
What journey into nature have you not yet taken?
Africa. I have traveled to many parts of the world, but never managed to make it to that continent.
What are some of your favorite outdoor activities?
I built a koi pond, and ripped out all my grass for a more natural environment. I haul mulch, move rocks, prune, plant and have a wonderful time. I could spend every day doing something in my yard. I also like to walk a lot.
What are some of the biggest lessons nature has taught you?
Patience. I can't make something happen. Nature rules and we just follow along to make this show. I am a type A personality, so that is sometimes a difficult thing for me to deal with. I've also learned that the saying, "Everything is connected," is so very true.
What have you learned about yourself since starting the show?
I suppose I'm stronger than I thought. When I crawled down a sinkhole into the mouth of a cave, I was really afraid. One wrong move and I could have been seriously hurt, but I did it. I've also learned how much I enjoy being close to a wild animal. I like to hold snakes and I got a huge kick out of picking up a pelican.
What is the biggest fear you have overcome?
Starting over. I had an idyllic life in Virginia before I took the job with CNN. In one month, I separated from my ex-husband, left a job with great potential for a senior management position, abandoned the home I worked so hard to renovate and spent my first Christmas away from my family. All based on a one year contract with no promise of anything beyond that.
What is your idea of happiness?
The health and happiness of my family and friends, a very fine bottle of wine and no deadlines.
Who are the people that help you be your best self?
Those who are missing limbs, struggling with a horrible disease or living in poverty because they have lost a job and cannot find another. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, or start complaining about things that aren't going my way, I see or hear about someone with much bigger obstacles and shut my mouth.
“Georgia Outdoors” airs on Fridays at 8:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 6 p.m.